Friday, 14 October 2011

This isn't a party! You can't be political here.

Dismissal is the ultimate facile gesture.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement prepares to move north to Canada's financial heart of Bay Street, so too do the arrogant self-satisfied out of hand dismissals of the movement follow. The media is already implicit in this, having firmly established a largely inaccurate narrative. They report this collective as a disparate and desperate group without a game plan or a firm set of established goals. Even the choice of moniker -- "protesters" -- is an attempt to delegitimize the movement by evoking images of violence and destruction. The language of protest is stigmatizing and inaccurate and presupposes the movements demise. This is a grossly misleading caricature. Yes, the movement is diverse, but this becomes an issue solely because of the existing character of politics in America which is so homogeneous: elite and upper class. Yes, the movement has a diverse range of concerns, ranging from climate change to jobs. Despite this, however, the basic underlying premise is clear: they're mad, they're tired of being marginalized and ignore, and they want a more equitable deal. They are not demanding the implementation of a blissful socialist workers utopia. They are not asking for a free hand out. Rather, they are demanding opportunity and fairness, the fulfillment of what they were promised. Yet this message is so cavalierly dismissed precisely because it is not expressed through the 'legitimate' channels of public policy making: party politics and the electoral system. 

The rejection is so preposterously absurd that it borders on farce. Having been dismissed by elites and ignored by the formal political process which has instead promoted the vested interests of those in power, participants are derided for not working within that very process. They are told the only legitimate means of change is through the very system that has failed to pay attention. Given that Obama road in to office under a banner of change -- promising, among other things, to end the culture of greed and avarice on Wall Street and end its dominance in Washington -- deriding the disaffected because they are not working within the predefined 'legitimate' channels is asinine. That route was tried, but the results were more of the same. 

Informal politics is the sole remaining option available and facile dismissals of this route are ignorant of history. Electoral politics is slow, at times static and often immune to change from the inside. They are creatures of the status quo, changing only so much as is required within the environment of electoral politics. In essence they are vote maximizing machines with little interest in taking positions that could undermine their chances of electoral success. It has been pressure from outside the apparatus of parties that the most significant change has occurred. Rights are not things which are granted by those in power who suddenly have a change of heart: they are ceased. The women's suffrage movement worked from outside the party system, using public speech, moral suasion and external pressure. Further developments, for instance, in achieving 'personhood', came through the courts. In the United States, the civil rights movement was particularly adept at using a combination of mass demonstrations and pressure to influence government policy. The same is true of the gay movement, which relied on protest and the judiciary to press for rights the legislature explicitly denied. Changes within Parliament tend to be slow, incremental piecemeal which play out over long periods. It is not conducive to providing radical change.

.. but where's your party platform?

Stemming directly from this insistence on change through formal mechanisms of politics is a strange claim that political parties are the prescription for our democratic maladies. The Occupy Wall Street movement and its rhizomatic offshoots are essentially derided because they do not present a comprehensive political platform for change. If voting does nothing for you, either join the party of run for office. This is the ultimate bullshit dismissal and the absolute height of intellectual vacuity. First, as I noted above, this movement has taken form precisely because the traditional party system has failed them. While the Canadian party system offers a few more  alternative - though, in reality, not much - the United States de facto two-party system makes change through an alternative party essentially impossible. Few members of Congress are elected as independents, let alone members of other parties. In Canada, third and forth party options are more readily available, but mostly lack the chance to take power. Simply being present is not enough to affect change (just ask Elizabeth May). Moreover, the closer parties come to power, the more the tendency toward brokerage emerges. Polities shift from change to electability. The federal NDP provides a solid example. Once a party with a clear desire for systemic change, they have banished the class content of their politics, embraced free trade and capitalist principles and offer little more than a patina of change.

Electoral politics if one thing, the internal party structures and functions is another. I've heard several calls that OWS activists should stop doing what's 'easy' (demonstrating) and do something worthwhile, like join a party.  The argument is simple: the only means to change is through parties, so the solution is to change the party from the inside. There are practical reasons why this is a cop-out. First, substantive change within parties is extremely difficult. Party constitutions are often a barrier and require significant effort to change. Parties are also founded on particularly ideological strands which are difficult to cut. A party would have to be inundated with new members in sufficient numbers as to substantially alter. Parties also require a significant time and energy commitment that isn't available to those without leisure time. Given the strains on the middle and worker classes, regular active engagement is likely to be a problem. Starting a party from the ground up is also a decades long process. For problems needing redress, parties -- assuming they take off -- will not be a position to do much for years. 

What does it mean to act politically?

Perhaps the most alarming aspect by these dismissals -- particularly by so-called academics -- is the way in which they so routinely and unthinkingly accept an version of politics which is narrow and sharply prescribed. The question of what it means to act politically is an ancient one, but the discourse of politics I'm critiquing here has clear, simple and unconvincing answers to these old questions.First need to make a distinction between 'Politics' and 'the political'1. The terms are similar, but not the same. In essence, questions about what counts as politics is the political. In narrow terms, the political is often taken as elections, parties and the apparatus of government, for instance. In broader terms, the political has to do with the establishment of that particular social order: it tells us what is and is not politics. Elites, particularly through parties (but also through the media), have come to shape the political and narrowly define what can be open to politics. Questions about the system itself and, in most cases, economic aspects are outside political consideration. This is also the prescribed view that sees the realm of democratic politics as being confined solely to joining parties, running in elections and casting ballots. These are the only means legitimated and condoned as access points to politics and the institutions of state. Anything outside this is not properly politics and, as such, can be dismissed or repressed. It is this version of the political that OWS -- and, closer to home, citizen deputants fighting back against the Ford regime in Toronto -- are challenging. They do not see politics as beginning and simultaneously ending in a voting booth. Rather, they see the space between elections as fair game for political activity. As such, pressure and advocacy, civil disobedience, deputations, lobbying within the community, making demands of elected officials and the like are all valid expressions of democratic participation. There is no reason to accept the prescribed notion of politics. Representative democracy does require that all political activity be delegated to the exclusion of the citizen. Ultimately, OWS is an expression of this, a hope that democracy can move out of the voter booth. 

In Canada the media and the mainstream pundits are blithely uncritical of this limitation of democratic politics. The usually astute commentator, Chantal H├ębert, misses the point entirely when she herself dismisses the chances of Occupy Bay Street being successful: "We've just had what, seven elections, including a national election, in which all incumbents were reelected and where people didn't show up to vote and now we're going to occupy Bay Street to get change? [I] don't think so." Her dismissal presumes that a rejection of electoral politics is a dismissal of politics itself. It's not. Such dismissals are beyond facile and take a contingent social order as given and unchanging without question. Rather, this contingent order is being challenged by OWS. It's a rejection a system driven by entrenched interests that is incredibly difficult to break into and which, contrary to the rules set by those with power, sees politics as taking place on a bigger plane, both discursively and spatially. It is not a disengagement with politics, it is a rejection of politics as narrowly defined. To borrow from Clauswitz: occupation is the continuation of politics by other means. 

This isn't a protest: it's politics.

1.For a good discussion of 'politics' v 'the political', see Jenny Edkins Poststructuralism and International Relations

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